Preparing for Defeat
I’m writing this from Skopje, North Macedonia, where I’ve been for the last week teaching one of our Leadership Academy for Development courses. Following the Ukraine war is no different here in terms of available information, except that I’m in an adjacent time zone, and the fact that there is more support for Putin in the Balkans than in other parts of Europe. A lot of the latter is due to Serbia, and Serbia's hosting of Sputnik.
I’ll stick my neck out and make several prognostications:
- Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion. Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations. Putin at this point has committed the bulk of his entire military to this operation—there are no vast reserves of forces he can call up to add to the battle. Russian troops are stuck outside various Ukrainian cities where they face huge supply problems and constant Ukrainian attacks.
- The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize. This is at least true in the north; the Russians are doing better in the south, but those positions would be hard to maintain if the north collapses.
- There is no diplomatic solution to the war possible prior to this happening. There is no conceivable compromise that would be acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine given the losses they have taken at this point.
- The United Nations Security Council has proven once again to be useless. The only helpful thing was the General Assembly vote, which helps to identify the world’s bad or prevaricating actors.
- The Biden administration’s decisions not to declare a no-fly zone or help transfer Polish MiGs were both good ones; they've kept their heads during a very emotional time. It is much better to have the Ukrainians defeat the Russians on their own, depriving Moscow of the excuse that NATO attacked them, as well as avoiding all the obvious escalatory possibilities. The Polish MiGs in particular would not add much to Ukrainian capabilities. Much more important is a continuing supply of Javelins, Stingers, TB2s, medical supplies, comms equipment, and intel sharing. I assume that Ukrainian forces are already being vectored by NATO intelligence operating from outside Ukraine.
- The cost that Ukraine is paying is enormous, of course. But the greatest damage is being done by rockets and artillery, which neither MiGs nor a no-fly zone can do much about. The only thing that will stop the slaughter is defeat of the Russian army on the ground.
- Putin will not survive the defeat of his army. He gets support because he is perceived to be a strongman; what does he have to offer once he demonstrates incompetence and is stripped of his coercive power?
- The invasion has already done huge damage to populists all over the world, who prior to the attack uniformly expressed sympathy for Putin. That includes Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and of course Donald Trump. The politics of the war has exposed their openly authoritarian leanings.
- The war to this point has been a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built up seemingly high-tech military forces in the past decade, but they have no combat experience. The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.
- Hopefully Taiwan itself will wake up as to the need to prepare to fight as the Ukrainians have done, and restore conscription. Let’s not be prematurely defeatist.
- Turkish drones will become bestsellers.
- A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.
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